Italy’s beer scene is buzzing. “Italy Is Making Some of the Best Damn Beer in the World,” reads one headline. It is “Italian Craft Beer’s Time to Shine,” announces another. (Disclosure: I myself was an early contributor to this trend, writing a New York Times travel section cover story about beer in northern Italy in 2008.)
All of those claims are true, at least to some degree. But before you buy a ticket to Rome thinking that you’re going to craft beer heaven, be aware that even big fans of the Italian beer scene have legitimate complaints about it. I’ve been visiting Italy on at least a more-or-less yearly basis for about 10 years, almost always on beer business, and have judged beers at Italy’s premier awards competition, Birra dell’Anno, six times over the last seven years. I can assure you that Italian craft beer truly is awesome. But here are a few legitimate downsides about birra artigianale.
IT’S IDIOSYNCRATIC TO THE POINT OF OCCASIONALLY BEING UNDRINKABLE.
Italian brewers have masterfully added their own personal stamps on what they brew, often using local ingredients to add regional flavors. Sometimes it works, as with the small explosion of Italian beers made with chestnuts or chestnut honey. And then there are the “Italian tomato ales,” as well as beers brewed with so much fresh basil they taste exactly like pesto — and not in the good way. When I asked, one friend in Rome mentioned trying several beers made with local truffles, which he said were absolutely awful.
“Italian brewers are famous for their creativity and their use of local products,” Maurizio Maestrelli, a Milan-based beer journalist and judge, says. “But, in my opinion, creativity has to be explained and, in the end, beer has to be drunk.”
Read up on breweries and beer reviews before you go. Highly rated places like Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’ in Rome and Birrificio Italiano far in the north of the country are highly rated for good reason. And if you don’t know anything about the beer on tap, for God’s sake, ask for a taster before you order a full pint.
IT CAN BE EXPENSIVE, CONSIDERING WHAT YOU GET.
“In Italy beer is more expensive if you compare it to the price of wine. This happens mainly because of the taxes,” Francesca Morbidelli, who writes about Italian craft beer at Pinta Medicea, says.
Big tax breaks that provide assistance to Italian winemakers do not apply to the country’s brewers. And the need to import most basic ingredients like malt and hops — local versions of which are close to nonexistent — raises prices even further.
That means a pint-size portion of beer in a bar in Milan costs usually around €5.50 (approximately $6.25), no matter if it’s a decent craft beer or a bland lager from a mega-brewer. That’s maybe not bad if you’re coming from a big city like New York, but it’s certainly not cheap in global terms. Beer lists at places like MyAle in Rome can hit €6.50 for 33-centiliter bottles, or about $7.50 for just over 11 ounces.
By contrast, a half-liter (16.9 ounces) of beer in Bamberg, Germany — home of the smoky local specialty Bamberger Rauchbier and the beloved “ungespundetes” versions of high-grade lager — often costs around €3. At a bar like Les Brasseurs in Brussels, €5.50 will get you a half-liter of Boon’s Oude Lambic, a bucket-list, world-class brew with almost no competition anywhere outside Belgium.
Local costs are local costs, and if you want to drink like a local, you’re going to have to suck this one up. That said, try to time your drinking to match up with a good aperitivo, or happy-hour snack buffet, like the one at Birrificio Lambrate in Milan. First, this is Italy, so you know it’s going to be delicious. Second, you can probably get most of a meal out of a good aperitivo, which is usually either very cheap or free, as long as you’re buying beers.
PRESENTATION OFTEN TRUMPS TASTE.
Blame it on the Italians’ eternal pursuit of la bella figura, the all-important role of beauty and an attractive appearance in Italian culture; but sometimes it seems like craft brewers here emphasize logos and packaging over flavorful brewing. While Czechs and Germans rely on the same standard, half-liter bottle that can be reused by hundreds of breweries across the two countries, Italians often have their own special bottles. Le Baladin’s Isaac might have a relatively low rating on Ratebeer, but it does comes in a beautiful custom bottle bearing the brewery’s embossed logo.
Gifts. Whether you bring it back in your checked bottle carrier or pick one up at a shop back home, a bottle of Italian craft brew will make a far more impressive present, at least in visual terms, than a bumped-up, obviously reused German half-liter, no matter what is actually inside.
IT’S NOT NEARLY AS POPULAR AS PEOPLE SAY IT IS.
Going by headlines alone, you’d think that “craft beer is trending in Italy,” or that the country has an “overwhelming love of craft beer.” But in truth, Italians still suck down less suds (around 31 liters per person) than they do wine (around 34 liters per person). Those figures include all the beer drunk in Italy, from artful craft releases to flavorless mega-brews.
Craft beer might be growing as a share of that, but the fact remains that Italy is not even among the world’s top 20 beer-consuming countries, according to Kirin’s most recent global beer report.
Good beer is still relatively underground, which means that when you visit a destination beer bar like Il Punto in Bologna, the people sitting next to you are probably going to be really, really into what they’re drinking. If you’re even moderately knowledgable about the craft beer scene in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K., you’ll have no trouble making a bunch of new friends.
IT’S STUCK IN THE PAST.
Sure, there’s a slight chance you’ll find a Brut IPA, a bowl of haze, or whatever the new craft beer hotness is this week. But Italy is a weird country for craft beer, with many cutting-edge producers still making highly traditional styles that hardcore geeks in other countries forgot about years ago.
Feel like sucking down a breakfast-cereal Imperial Stout? Italy might not be your place. Interested in old-school styles like Dunkles, Best Bitter, or California Common? You’ll do fine here.
Indulge in a classic Belgian witbier like Seta from Birrificio Rurale, gulp down oceans of the esteemed kölsch-style Rodersch from BiDu, or experience the sublime flavors of a straightforward dry stout like Gallagher from Viterbo province’s Hilltop Brewery. Afterward, go back to your local all-IPA craft bar and tell them how crazy things are in the old country. Who knows? You might even call it beer paradise.